|A Messenger with a Message
Profile: Kevin Bolger
New York Sun, September 16, 2004
By Daniela Gerson
Some call him "Squid"; others know him simply as the "bike messenger
Nearly a decade ago, a dispatcher bestowed the second nickname on Kevin
Bolger, the mohawked messenger said. A tattoo on his upper arm depicts
such an employer - as a skull demanding that he embarks on another run
(he is shown as a defiant "ghost rider").
The "general" moniker stuck and Mr. Bolger, now 32, has taken on the
role of an elder statesman in the messenger world, having ridden for 10
companies. He has been a driving force in developing New York's bike
"I started by giving out flyers for events," Mr. Bolger said between
food delivery stops in Williamsburg. "I would find the messengers and
then I would harass them all to get together and make it happen."
On a recent Wednesday night, his shaggy shock of platinum hair hid
under a backwards cap ("I've been rocking this haircut since I was
17"), Mr. Bolger was mobilizing his volunteer team to spread the word
about the Bike Messenger World Championships, the weeklong global
competition of messenger prowess, which New York will be hosting for
the first time next summer.
According to Mr. Bolger's plans, New York City streets will be filled
with 1,000 messengers competing in various simulated-delivery races and
in other competitions such as "bunny hop" jumping contests, and cargo
contests hauling bricks, carpet, and hay bales.
In a press package prepared by Mr. Bolger's wife, Amy, a designer and
former messenger, the $500,000 preview budget is laid out, including
$3,000 each for tattoo shows and arm-wrestling competitions, and $1,400
for an art show.
Of the more than 1,000 New York messengers, Mr. Bolger said he could
probably name about 200 of them. The current tight-knit and active
circle of New York bike messengers is a far cry from his start in the
business 14 years ago.
"The first couple of years I was out there I knew the people at my
company and that was about it. We just passed each other in the
streets," Mr. Bolger said.
In the winter of 1992, shortly after Mr. Bolger started his first
messenger gig and when he acquired the moniker "Squid" - a nickname
from bartending - he got his first glimpse of the potential for
building a cohesive community.
He found a leaflet in the spokes of his bike, advertising a memorial at
49th Street and Madison Avenue for a messenger killed on the job. Mr.
Bolger decided to show his support.
When he arrived, others had taken over the intersection, dropping their
bikes and forming a circle. "Friends had spray-painted the guy's name
on the spot where he was killed," Mr. Bolger recalled. "And I remember
someone had a 40 and he poured it on the spot."
"The friends of the guy were trying to make people take notice that
this guy spent his life out here to keep this city moving. Not too many
jobs in the city that people die doing," continued Mr. Bolger, who said
he knows of about a dozen messengers killed on the job. The sense of
common mission, he said, "made me
want to do this kind of work even more."
A few years later, after a messenger skills competition in Toronto, he
"realized there was a community where people took care of each other,
and hung out with each other," and he came back determined to create a
similar culture in New York.
For the first race he organized, on Halloween in 1995, Mr. Bolger drew
up a flyer: "Winner takes all: $5 down, let's see who's the fastest."
Thus began his role as the general. "I was giving out orders to all the
Mr. Bolger's brother, a former messenger who introduced him to the
trade, warned him against spurring competition, saying messengers
racing through the city would result in casualties.
But the Halloween fun ride, which regularly draws about 100 riders from
across the East Coast, and the Warrior, April Fool's, and other rides
that followed, have so far been miraculously safe. Generally, they
start with a manifesto, where each rider is told the route. Along the
way, they stop at checkpoints to collect fake packages or gag gifts -
or even bob for apples. It all ends with a party. As a veteran on the
street, Mr. Bolger has taken an active role in advocating better
working conditions for messengers, whose average career, he said, is
less than six months.
"The companies keep getting this fresh meat," Mr. Bolger said. "A lot
of these kids don't realize they're working for crappy companies."
"I would love to see before I stop riding a messenger's office in the
city that is just for messengers, where a guy can stop and get a cup of
coffee or throw his gloves in the dryer for a half hour, because in the
winter it gets cold," he said, adding, "And a rating system for the
different companies...I think eventually if we did it right we could
make the owners accountable."
He may be an old man in the messenger world, but Mr. Bolger has no
plans to retire anytime soon. "I love riding my bike. I love the four
seasons. I love going into the same buildings. In one day as a
messenger in New York you see more of it than most people in Manhattan
do in their whole lives. You see thousands and thousands of people,
whatever crazy events go on in the city you know about it. You're part
of the pulse."